Everybody gets their start somewhere, so this post will be a departure from the usual. I’m so excited that I’m able to share the motion-blurred, sparsely and enthusiastically shot gallery of my first adventure through abandonment: The former Ypsilanti State Hospital and Center for Forensic Psychiatry, 2006.
I knew I was no photographer, but after growing up poring through my mother’s personal photo albums of the ghost towns she and my dad visited, I couldn’t fathom the idea of not documenting the adventure somehow. I grabbed my dad’s awful 1.3 megapixel camera, used exclusively for eBay listings, and we hit the road.
Ypsilanti State was built in 1930, and is most famous for 1964’s Three Christs of Ypsilanti by psychiatrist Dr. Milton Rokeach, a case study in which three of his patients there, all of whom believed they were Jesus Christ, were treated by forced interaction with each other. Dr. Rokeach writes thoughtfully about their conversations and daily life in the hospital, sometimes more poetic than clinical. In the 1980’s, looking back and questioning the study’s ethics, the doctor noted that even though the Christs were not cured, “it did cure me of my godlike delusion that I could manipulate them out of their beliefs.” It’s observantly and beautifully written. Highest recommendations.
As with most hospitals of its ilk, there were a handful of ethical issues and questionable medical testing over the years, Ypsi State was more permissive of community involvement than other institutions of its era. Many patients held small jobs in nearby Ann Arbor’s local businesses and were known around town, going home to the hospital in the evening. Its eventual closure was the loss of that home, and their release and lack of further treatment or other options impacted the city of Ypsilanti for decades to come. Ypsi State is long demolished and the city is undergoing gentrification to erase its past, but the hospital has returned to pop culture relevance in the present. The Three Christs‘ film adaptation is planned to be released in 2018.
Though I babysat for one of its psychiatrists, its presence hadn’t really registered until I’d very recently taken a closer look at the graffiti on the bricks, broken windows, and faded signage. I overheard friends discussing it at our high school and nosily asked for them to take me, and they obliged.
We approached with tact. We sprinted through a small cluster of trees once the security guard had made her round through an unlocked lower level door into the men’s showers. Inside we wandered upstairs, marveling at how the first half of the hospital looked like it had been dropped into the ocean, while the other looked so normal. I have dreamy, super saturated memories of sitting on the roof in the winter wind, squinting at the security guard as she circled the property, the orange bricks reflecting sunlight in our faces under the blue sky.
My friend had drawn a map for other visitors on a whiteboard, which we used to talk to the other explorers across our visits. We spent hours poking at all the old technology and medical equipment and dragging our hands across the piano keys in spite of the security, because consequences were a nonissue. I still have a felt-covered hammer from that piano in my china cabinet, where it will always stay.
Later that year, I sat on the roof of my Saturn with my mom’s 35mm Canon AE-1 from her ghost town days, watching a backhoe tear through the floors as everything that was Ypsi State was demolished for a Toyota plant. By then I’d figured out that most of the best abandoned psychiatric hospitals were on the East Coast and the ghost towns were mostly out West, there was only one place I could afford to explore. After a few more years of languishing in only occupied structures, I headed to Detroit with the train station as my easily obtainable holy grail. The city was a very different place back then.
No, you probably aren’t navigating away from this post feeling like you walked the halls of Ypsi yourself and these are definitely not the architectural highlights of the building I’d photograph today, but I seriously haven’t seen these shots in eleven years and was so excited to find them hidden away on a long-forgotten account. There are still a couple lost to time, but whatever. I’m grateful for the chance to share such an important piece of Ypsilanti’s (and my) history that I thought I’d lost for good.
So I guess the takeaway is this: If you want to take photos or explore, just start. Chances are pretty high that even as a beginner, you’ll walk away with something you’ll be excited to find a decade later.